Blogosphere Reading Systems

Peanuts, Egg Drops, and PKM.

Happy 100th Birthday Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz! Charles Schulz was the creator of the world-renowned Peanuts comic strip. In honor of the centennial of his birth, many cartoonists created a comic strip for this weekend. You can view the tributes here. (Some side comments: As most people read newspapers online now, are there far fewer readers of newspaper comic strips now? I used to read the Sunday funnies throughout my youth; I recognize few of the cartoonists on that tribute page. My favorite strips included Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Non Sequitur, and The Boondocks. For anyone who has even a mild interest in Peanuts, I highly recommend a visit to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. There are fun exhibits, thousands of comic strips on display, and interesting history about Mr. Schulz.)

Egg Drop from Space. I am one of the millions of subscribers to Mark Rober’s YouTube channel. His most recent video, Egg Drop from Space, is compelling because he shares his major failures in this project. Perhaps he knew that this would make for great storytelling, though he did not have to be this honest and share so many vulnerabilities. (I also completely missed that he was, in essence, trying to design a guided missile.) This isn’t the first time he has brought up failure in his videos, though the extents of his failures make him relatable and his resulting persistence is inspiring. I continue to hope that people will be willing to share their failures, since we’ve all experienced them and will continue to do so. (In that vein, in 2016 I shared a post about My CV of Failures. The formatting is weird because I am unable to use a WordPress footnotes plugin now that I was able to use then.)

“Personal Knowledge Management.” Though I’ve had an interest in technology for much of my life, I would not describe myself as someone who is technologically savvy. There are technologies I routinely use, though I have not uncovered their (or my) full potential. One tool that I have used for several months now is Logseq, which has the accurate description of being a “privacy-first, open-source knowledge base”. (I had dabbled in Obsidian—which I learned about as a loyal Dynalist user for several years—for a while, though personally find Logseq to be more powerful and flexible. As I get older, my appreciation for open-source projects has also grown… though I understand essentially nothing about or in Github.) I’ve not used Notion or Roam Research, but have used Notational Velocity and Tiddlywiki, which are similar “knowledge bases”. If you have used these programs in the past (or even if you haven’t), consider trying Logseq (not a paid endorsement, just someone who is at or near the peak of Mt. Stupid).

Informal-curriculum Medicine Reading Systems

Recent Readings.

Stack of read newspapers.
Photo by brotiN biswaS

On medicine being agents of social control. These three news articles highlight the misuse of authority within the context of medicine:

Delta ‘weaponized’ mental health rules against a pilot. She fought back. In short, a woman named Karlene Petitt was (and remains) a pilot for Delta airlines. In response to a general exhortation from Delta leadership to speak up about safety issues, she submitted reports that did just that. In return, Delta leadership sought to silence her and initiated a process to deem her “too mentally unstable” to be a pilot. Delta recruited a psychiatrist who provided a diagnosis to support this argument. (The psychiatrist apparently diagnosed her with bipolar disorder because of her many accomplishments—“well beyond what any woman [he’s] ever met could do”.) She contested this and took legal action. She won.

How a Chinese Doctor Who Warned of Covid-19 Spent His Final Days. This 16-minute video investigation includes remarks from a physician who provided care to Dr. Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist in China who tried to alert the public about Covid-19 before he died from the infection himself. Around minute 11 of the video, both the narrator and the physician comment that hospital administrators wanted the health care team to provide an intervention (ECMO) that was not clinically indicated. However, it would buy the hospital administrators time and allow the hospital to report that the health care team “did everything”. The physician states that using ECMO would have been both a violation of medical care and medical ethics. This is an example of “reputation management” superseding clinical judgment.

Woman’s legal quest illuminates the rights of hospital patients who want to leave. Here, a woman voluntarily agreed to enter a psychiatric hospital for care, but was not permitted to leave upon request. Available documentation suggests that she was not at risk of harming herself or others at the time of her request to leave. Under these circumstances, that means the hospital was essentially holding her captive. (This is reminiscent of “On Being Sane in Insane Places“, where context affects how we evaluate situations.) Even worse:

“All patients admitted to the facility,” the manager said, meet the criteria to be involuntarily committed, “even voluntarily admitted patients.”

The manager told DOH investigators that staff “do not orally notify voluntary patients” of their right to be released immediately, despite a state law requiring this disclosure. If they did, he said, “Everybody would be asking to leave.”

Those two short paragraphs reflect poorly on the hospital in question.

On the death penalty. The first two articles present opposing perspectives on the death penalty. The third article provides a first-person account of being in prison, which adds context to the first two articles.

If Not the Parkland Shooter, Who Is the Death Penalty For? Here, the author describes justifications for punishment:

Society embraces four major justifications for punishment: deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation and retribution.

I’ve not seen it described this way and appreciate the framework. This might be a red herring: The author also argues that the Parkland shooter’s “human dignity requires his just punishment [with the death penalty] as an end in itself”. I struggled to wrap my head around this one: We usually cite people’s humanity and dignity as reasons to keep them alive, not to kill them.

I Wish the Jury Had Not Sentenced My Family’s Killer to Death. In contrast, the author here argues how the death penalty, while maybe just, doesn’t actually solve any problems. It instead only prolongs suffering for the families of victims. Also, “death by incarceration” is still death. (I also appreciated her firm recommendations about how to support people who experience unspeakable tragedies.) While the author of the previous pro-death penalty piece focuses more on theory and logic, the author here focuses more on practicalities and emotions. Both models have value. Both articles made me consider my own stance on the death penalty.

Prisoners Like Me Are Being Held Hostage to Price Hikes. The author of this piece is currently in prison. Though I have never worked in prison, I have worked in jail. His descriptions about commissaries, food items, and access to various items seem similar to what I have observed in jail settings. (It also continues to baffle me how businesses are allowed to make money off of people in jail—including medical care!!!) Nobody is spared from inflation and price hikes.

To end this on a lighter note: This artwork from Andy J. Pizza made me feel a variety of invisible things:

Policy Public health psychiatry Reading Systems

Is Mental Health Political?

Items neatly arranged on a desk, including a clipboard with a blank white sheet of paper and a magnet board with separate letters spelling "politics".
Photo by Tara Winstead

Here’s another piece in the New York Times’s series on mental health and society: Mental Health is Political. (Forgive the generous quoting and quotation marks that follow.) Dr. Carr says:

In medicine, examples of reification [the process by which the effects of a political arrangement of power and resources start to seem like objective, inevitable facts about the world] are so abundant that sociologists have a special term for it: “medicalization,” or the process by which something gets framed as primarily a medical problem. Medicalization shifts the terms in which we try to figure out what caused a problem, and what can be done to fix it. Often, it puts the focus on the individual as a biological body, at the expense of factoring in systemic and infrastructural conditions.

She goes on to say:

When it comes to mental health, the best treatment for the biological conditions underlying many symptoms might be ensuring that more people can live less stressful lives.

… after clarifying that she is

not arguing that mental illnesses are fake, or somehow nonbiological. Pointing out the medicalization of social and political problems does not mean denying that such problems produce real biological conditions; it means asking serious questions about what is causing those conditions.

The crux of her argument is this (emphasis mine):

This principle is what some health researchers mean by the idea that there are social determinants of health — that effective long-term solutions for many medicalized problems require nonmedical — this is to say, political — means.

I think I understand what she is arguing here: There are systems in our culture that contribute to mental distress and illnesses. I generally agree with this. If entry level jobs consistently paid wages that allowed people to rent apartments in cities where they work, that would reduce psychological pressure. The stress of long commutes, public transportation, and car and gasoline costs would disappear. People would have more time to enjoy healthful activities instead of commuting. If people are spending more on housing than they can afford, this leads to the tension of living paycheck to paycheck. Insecurities related to eviction and homelessness grow. None of this contributes to psychological wellness.

However, I also wonder how she defines “political” throughout this piece. Is all psychological distress really “political” in nature? For people who experience auditory hallucinations and delusions, is their psychological distress “political”? (Recall that there are people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia who are not indigent: They sustain employment, pay their rent on time, and lavish their pets with treats.)

Are all nonmedical interventions for mental illnesses—whether “medicalized” or not—“political” interventions? At various times and places, there has been alignment between the political beliefs of the community and those in political power. Did rates of mental distress and illnesses significantly decline? (I don’t know the answer to this; if you do, let me know.) If alcohol use disorders are mental illnesses, does this mean that Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups are “political” interventions? If people who have lost loved ones to suicide and convene as a group to express grief and support, is this a “political” act?

Should we still describe our psychological distress as “political” when life is inherently stressful? Is the act of commiserating with other medical professionals for support during the pandemic a political act? Maybe it is; maybe we must turn to each other because we recognize that health authorities apparently cannot and will not provide more support to us. But maybe it’s not; maybe this is a community of care we intentionally cultivated over time.

I found some validation for my reactions in this Gawker piece: Failure to Cope “Under Capitalism”. Clare Coffey describes

an application of “the personal is political” so expanded in scope that, for a certain kind of person, personal problems, anxieties, and dissatisfactions are illegible or illegitimate unless described as political problems.

She further notes that

[the] invocation [of capitalism] immediately establishes a phenomenon in the realm of the political, without any further work required.

… if only political problems are legitimate, only political solutions are admissible. This has the odd effect of filtering all attempts at self-integration through a political lens.

By describing problems (like capitalism) and solutions as political, perhaps this absolves us of the work we can (and sometimes need) to do. How can one person’s action have any meaningful impact on a political problem like capitalism? Aren’t systems, by definition, much larger than individual people? She then points out:

But in fact there is no one to adjudicate between you and capital, no one to say yes, that really is too much, let’s reassign this project. …

There is no political program that will release you from the necessity of doing more than you should have to or feel capable of doing, in politics as in every other part of life.

I appreciate her exhortation:

This is your life. You do not have time to wait for the revolution to begin living it. You will always be able to find someone to give you permission not to live it. But no one is coming along to live it for you.

To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that we can eradicate mental distress and illnesses by simply yanking on those bootstraps. The statement that “mental health is political”—to me, at least—removes any agency we have as individuals. Yes, political interventions and actions can improve population (mental) health. However, some political interventions will have little to no impact on individual psychological health. There are choices we all can make, on our own, that can help improve our own psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, we each can make choices everyday that can improve the psychological health of the people within our six-foot radius. Our actions don’t have to be political statements.

Given the work that I do, I don’t need much persuasion to believe that systems have many direct and indirect adverse effects on people’s health. It also seems unreasonable, though, that politics will always provide solutions for mental distress and illness.

Consult-Liaison Observations Reading Reflection

Therapy and the Use of Words.

Photo by Pixabay

A flurry of mental health-related articles have piqued my attention recently, many of which are worth writing about. We’ll start with one article from the New York Times’s new series, It’s Not Just You: A Times Opinion project on mental health and society in America today.

Huw Green, a clinical psychologist, writes in We Have Reached Peak ‘Mental Health’:

The contemporary cultural landscape’s recent zeal for mental health as an important good has been accompanied by a faith in therapy as the best way to obtain it. …

Therapy is important as a valuable health intervention for many, rather than a universal prerequisite to a good life. Most people simply cannot afford to have lengthy therapy, or it doesn’t fit with their cultural or religious worldview. Do we really want to suggest that this compromises their mental health or their ability to do things like parent well?

Recently, a man at work asked me if he should “get therapy”. A horrifying event happened in his life about six months ago. Someone who cares about him has been haranguing him to go to therapy. He wondered if he should heed that suggestion.

I have provided therapy. I’ve also received therapy myself, which I found both helpful at the time and since it ended. How did I respond to this man?

“The only person who can answer [if you should get therapy] is you.” (Which I realize is a shrinky thing to say that is also not helpful. I elaborated further, which is what follows.)

I don’t think there was ever a time that I thought that “everyone should go to therapy”. Can it be helpful? Yes. Can it improve your life in multiple dimensions? Yes.

Can it take a lot of time? Yes. Can it cost a lot of money? Yes. (Do you think about things you’d rather avoid? Often. Do you sometimes dread going to therapy? Absolutely.)

Could you do something else just as valuable and healthful with your time? Yes.

The thing about conventional therapy is that it has a heavy reliance on words. You have to be able and willing to use words to describe your internal experiences, whether they be thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. You have to be able and willing to sit in a room with another person for dozens of minutes, week after week, often for months, and sometimes for years while using words. (… though I personally believe that no one should be in therapy for many years: If you’ve been routinely seeing a therapist for five or ten years and your presenting concerns or symptoms have not improved, is therapy actually helping you?)

And you know what? Not everyone likes using words. Or using words is not one of their strengths. It is true that part of the task of therapy is learning how to use words as a skill and for therapeutic purposes. While some people will, in the course of therapy, learn to use words instead of drinking three bottles of wine a night or making superficial cuts on their limbs, some people will find using words difficult, uncomfortable, or artificial.

Therapy is often the most successful when people have clear goals (that they can express in words). It’s hard to say you’ve achieved a goal when you are unable to describe it through the specific medium of language.

Furthermore, much of the task of therapy is learning about yourself: How do you react to events in life? Do your reactions cause problems or difficulties for you? For others? Does your reaction serve other purposes in your life? (e.g., Are you always apologizing because you always believe that you’re doing something wrong, and this is how you absolve yourself?) What would happen if you viewed life events, whether internal or external, differently? What if you believed you could make different choices? What if the stories you tell yourself aren’t accurate or true?

Do you need to receive therapy to learn about yourself in this way? I don’t believe so.

People can achieve psychological wellness (note: wellness, not perfection, which is what the term “mental health” seems to suggest these days) through many non-verbal activities:

  • playing a musical instrument
  • listening to music
  • dancing or other inspired movement
  • walking alone
  • walking with trees, mountains, and skies
  • drawing, whether the process is seen or unseen
  • running
  • sitting, with or without spiritual practices like prayer

… and other things that don’t involve words.

People want to live healthy, meaningful lives. Huw Green is right: Therapy isn’t required for this.


New Year, New Reads.

A new lunar year has arrived. May the year of the tiger bring us all better health and fortunes.

Here are some things I’ve read over the past week that may also be of interest to you:

If Everything Is ‘Trauma,’ Is Anything? “It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like you’re policing the language,” said Mr. Haslam. “But when we start to talk about ordinary adversities as ‘traumas’ there is a risk that we’ll see them as harder to overcome and see ourselves as more damaged by them.”

Impossible Silences. “They seem to me to be the kind of silences that are mutually felt and acknowledged, that are a function not merely of the ceasing of sound but of a body at ease or eyes that remain fixed. These are silences that assure the other that they are being heard not ignored. Silences that, if attended to closely and with care disclose rather than veil, clarify rather than obfuscate.”

Black History, Black Freedom and Black Love. “The three-part class, Black History, Black Freedom and Black Love will be freely available on during Black History Month.” I must confess that it is John McWhorter‘s participation that tipped me to commit to watching this.

Fragrant Palm Leaves. The death of Thich Nhat Hanh prompted me to pick up this book. He writes more freely here than he does in his future books. I wonder who “Steve” is and if he is still alive.

The Reason Putin Would Risk War. “He is threatening to invade Ukraine because he wants democracy to fail—and not just in that country.” (There is plenty of troubling news within the US. There is a world stage to be aware of, too, though I wish the news were better.)